Friday, July 20, 2007

Roger Ebert and the art of appreciation

Summary: Film critic Roger Ebert sometimes is knocked for being too generous toward too many movies. Maybe. But his review of Milos Foreman's "Goya's Ghosts" -- a movie that hasn't won much praise in other quarters -- tells us something about why his thumb often points up.

First here are some quotes from reviewers who didn't share Ebert's view of the movie, a majority I'd say.

"Ambitious script is stranded between entertainment and intellectualism, leaving us with a magnificent folly, thoroughly watchable for its visuals but ultimately hollow." -- Joanthan Holland, Variety.

"Lavish production and wardrobe design, as well as beautiful cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe make "Goya's Ghosts" lovely to look at, but as a portrait of the artist, the movie is a letdown." -- Carina Chocano, The Los Angeles Times

"A messy, horse-drawn load." -- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly.

"Goya's Ghosts" tries to recreate the pressure-filled horrors of a time when the Inquisition still was going strong in Spain. People's lives became hopelessly twisted or were completely destroyed by Church zealotry, much of it defended by what the Inquisitors viewed as high principle and moral certainty.

I thought "Goya's Ghost" did little more than provide an often-graphic picture of a harsh time. For me, some of the movie's problems involve what appeared to be major lapses in judgment. Stelan Skarskard proves miscast as Goya; Javier Bardem (one of my favorite actors) never really catches fire as Brother Lorenzo; and Natalie Portman is outright bad as Ines, a woman Goya used as a model and who later was tortured by Inquisitors for being sympathetic to the "blemish" of Jewishness in her family's past. She's thrown in jail, emerging 15 years later as a mad woman with a face that has been ruined by jail rot, torture and prosthetics.

On top of that the story can become annoyingly melodramatic, and it frequently loses Goya as a key figure in a plot that plays like low-rent Dickens.

No need to belabor these points: Foreman, who hasn't made a movie since his big-screen biography of comic Andy Kaufman -- 1999's "Man on the Moon" -- fails to create much excitement, aside from the opening credits, which are displayed over sketches by Goya that are shown to the accompaniment of a score that promises danger and high tension.

But Ebert took a different tack. Ebert has something that critics (myself included) might benefit from observing carefully -- a willingness to try to understand the objectives of a filmmaker, particularly a serious one.

Ebert mentions flaws in the movie, but his three-star review also includes the following observation: "I doubt that Forman and the legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere lacked the ability to tell a conventional story. I think the clue to their purpose is right there in the opening scene of the Goya drawings. Look carefully, and you may find something in the film to remind you of most of them. 'Goya's Ghosts' is like the sketchbook Goya might have made with a camera."

I'm not sure I can make that kind of leap, and I wasn't entirely convinced by Ebert's review, but I admired his ability to set aside expectation and come to grips with what he sees as the filmmaker's aspirations, as he reads them in the film. Criticism becomes an act of the empathic imagination, which is what it should be.

Though I can't say I enjoyed "Goya's Ghosts" or that I thought the picture succeeded on most levels, it did teach me something about the tumultuous period in which Goya worked. And I also learned something from Ebert's review, something about an approach to criticism that gives Ebert a reviewing personality that often sets him apart from the rest of the critical pack.

So why complain? Rather than arguing about Ebert's approach," a lot of us would do well to appreciate his work in something of the same spirit with which he's been able to appreciate the work of others.

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